Zigzagging Through the Real World

Brian Taylor

October 20, 2010

Even the bleakest academic career path has a certain comforting familiarity about it. While stringing together adjunct positions to pay the rent is not an appealing, or just, future for most Ph.D.'s, it is, at least, a scenario that is readily imagined.

Veering off the academic career track, by contrast, means entering a blurry and confusing territory where there are no clear signposts for a former academic. Being told you can do "anything" with your graduate degree is inspiring but also unhelpfully vague. Still, if you are willing to trust your skills and open your mind, the enormous range of options outside of academe can become exciting rather than overwhelming.

John Fox has made a career of "zigzagging" through the real world using skills he learned while earning his Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University. While writing is one theme that runs throughout his career (he is now working on a second book and directing content for a health-care technology company), calling him a writer is too narrow a description of his experience. A better way to describe him is as an explorer, both in the sense that he has traveled the globe but also in the sense that he is constantly discovering new ways to deploy his skills in the world outside of academe. I interviewed him as part of a series of columns I've written for The Chronicle on Ph.D.'s who pursue nonacademic career paths.


Q. Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

A. Truthfully? I wanted to travel the world and have someone else pay for it! OK, that's only partly true. I was enthralled with anthropology and specifically the mysteries of past cultures. I fell in love with anthropology as an undergraduate and had the chance to do some fieldwork during and just after college, including a summer spent excavating a Roman city in England and five months digging up a 4,000-year-old cave site in New Mexico.

I was hooked and soon learned that the only way to keep doing anthropology in any meaningful way was to attend graduate school. So off I went. I honestly can't say I ever went to graduate school with a career path, or even a career, in mind. I just followed my passions and hoped everything would follow suit from there.

Q.: How and why did you decide to leave academe?

A. In my last years in graduate school, post-school life loomed large—and rather threateningly, I might add. Even before I received my Ph.D., I was questioning whether I really wanted a life in academe. When I looked around, I saw a lot of unhappy young professors struggling to publish—or perish—and postponing families and lives. In my field at the time there were just a handful of jobs worth applying for each year and a backlog of underemployed Ph.D.'s applying for them. All in all, it was not an encouraging picture.

Then, just when I was poised to leave academe and do something else, I landed a teaching position at a respected university. But it only sealed the deal for me: I needed to get out. I found myself teaching classes of 100-plus students, with no teaching assistants, lousy pay, and all kinds of awful politics to deal with. I was done at that point and decided to make my move.

Q. What was your first nonacademic job after graduate school, and how did you get it?

A. The job that launched me out of academe was a dream job working on a unique K-12 online-education project called The Quests. As a graduate student, I had volunteered to answer kids' questions by e-mail for MayaQuest, the first of many Internet-learning expeditions that were sponsored and funded by an education-technology company called Classroom Connect. A team of explorers was traveling through the Maya region of Central America, meeting up with archaeologists and other scientists. They'd upload real-time reports, photos, and video to a Web site visited by classrooms around the country.

As an expert on the ancient Maya, and fascinated by the Internet and its promise—this was the mid-90s, after all—the project was right up my alley. Anyway, I did a good job and was offered a full-time position as a writer and team anthropologist. For more than four years I took part in, and helped produce and lead, nine expeditions on five continents, followed by over one million schoolchildren. It was, and remains, the most extraordinary work experience of my life.

Over the course of those expeditions, writing essays on the fly every night that would be read the next morning on the Web by thousands of kids, I honed my writing craft and my reporting skills. That really took my career in an entirely new direction and opened up new career opportunities that I'd never considered before.

Q. You've worked in a number of different fields—technology, education, global travel. What is the common thread that connects those experiences?

A. I've always loved the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that "the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks." My career since grad school has followed a zigzag course, to say the least. Much as I'd like to pretend it's been the unfolding of some great master plan, the truth is, it's come about through a combination of pursuing interests, seizing opportunities, and being pragmatic about making a living.

But the thread that has tied it all together is definitely writing. Since graduate school, I've worked in education and in advertising as a copywriter. I've overseen communications for nonprofits and directed marketing content for for-profit companies. And I've also written a book and am at work on another one right now. I'm on a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony right now.

The way I've come to think of it is that my job is to tell compelling stories—in different forms, to different audiences, with different goals and motivations. That's what I do well. And I still unabashedly call myself an anthropologist, even though that has not been part of my job title for many years.

My lens on life and my approach to the work I do is very much informed by anthropology, by the skills of observation, by the scientific method, by a cultural perspective, and by the rigor of research I learned as an academic. All of that, I've found, is highly relevant and highly valued in the so-called "real world."

Q. What lessons have you had to learn, or skills have you had to acquire, to be successful in your career?

A. Lots. As a writer and creative director, I've had to learn to be nimble and to write for different audiences and purposes. Academic writing, for example, is a very particular kind of writing. Beyond the rarified world of peer-reviewed journals, it really doesn't cut it. Most people can't read that stuff, actually.

Writing is about connecting a message with a reader. If you don't inhabit your reader's mind fully while writing, then you can't make the right connection. That's true, I've found, whether I'm doing a popular piece for a magazine, writing ad copy, or working on a speech.

The other big lesson I've learned is that you can't define your capabilities too narrowly—to be successful, you need to have an expansive view of yourself and what you have to offer. Ironically, I found academe as a career track to be very narrowing and limiting in that regard. These days, I'm quite comfortable wearing many career hats and learning about and dabbling in other fields. Again, I apply myself as an anthropologist, always the participant observer, always curious about "the other." Comes in handy.

Q. What advice would you give graduate students who are considering careers outside academe?

A. I guess the main advice I'd offer is not to sell yourself short. When I was on my way out of academe, I met other unhappy academics who would say, "But what else can I do?" I'd look at them in disbelief. You've got a Ph.D., and you're smart as hell!

I'd recommend that you think in a creative way about all the skills and capabilities you've had to master to get to where you are—research, writing, interviewing, experimenting, writing grant proposals, teaching, etc. Those are all marketable skills far beyond the walls of academe. Every organization, nonprofit or for-profit, is hungry for smart, creative people like you.

The second piece of advice I'd offer is kind of the counterpoint to the first piece: Don't assume or act like you're smarter than folks out there who never went to graduate school. Be humble and willing to learn. You may need to start over, to some extent, if you're breaking into a new field, so go out there with an open mind, and hungry to master new skills and you'll do well.

To anthropology students, in particular, I'd say don't be afraid to break out and take your unique, humanistic perspective out into the big, wide world—out where "the other" lives. I'm biased, of course, but I think a world in which anthropologists are scattered throughout the workforce—in government, nonprofits, business—would be a really great place to live. We have far too much to offer to all huddle together in colleges and universities. We need the knowledge and empathy and openness that come from studying anthropology to have a broader reach and impact in this world.

Susan Basalla May is the author, with Maggie Debelius, of "So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia," in its second edition from the University of Chicago Press.